Ericsson-Cisco partnership for "networks of the future" stops short of a merger

On Monday, Ericsson and Cisco announced a multi-faceted partnership to create the networks of the future – and through this, shape the direction of the industry. Ericsson, a leader in wireless network equipment, and Cisco, which dominates the market for Internet gear, will work together to integrate existing equipment. They will combine some sales and consulting efforts and, ultimately, may jointly develop entirely new hardware and services.

Both companies have invested a lot of time in designing this partnership over the past year, according to Ericsson’s CEO (see quote below).  

Cisco brings their leading position in IP and a strong presence in enterprise. Ericsson brings leadership in mobile networks,  strength in global services, and strong relationships with the world’s leading service providers.

Ericsson and Cisco together hold more than 56,000 patents, invest $11 billion annually in research and development, and operate more than 76,000 services professionals serving customers in more than 180 countries.

Hans Vestberg, President & CEO of Ericsson:

 “The strength of this partnership lies not just in its scale, but in the depth of the solutions Ericsson and Cisco can now provide to the networking market. It is a market in transition – increasingly mobile, cloud-based, and digital – and customers are seeking end-to-end solutions to reach their full potential.  We have evaluated the impact of acquisitions, our own development, and other strategic opportunities – and this partnership is by far the best way forward. We believe that this partnership will create the most value both for our customers and for Ericsson and Cisco.

For Ericsson, this partnership also fortifies the IP strategy we have developed over the past several years, and it is a key step forward in our own transformation. It will start generating revenues for Ericsson as soon as 2016, ramping up to USD 1 billion by 2018 and building from there.”

From the WSJ:

Both companies are coping with challenges that include a slowdown in the smartphone market, a longtime driver of revenues for the telecom companies that are their biggest customers. They also face heightened competition from Huawei, as well as a new threat created by the pending €15.6 billion ($16.8 billion) takeover of Alcatel-Lucent SA by Nokia Corp. Those rivals have expertise in both wireless and Internet technologies, a combination that Cisco and Ericsson hope to now match, said Pierre Ferragu, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein.

At the same time, the deal underscores a widening recognition of the downsides of large mergers, particularly cross-border transactions that can face regulatory scrutiny in many countries.

“Neither Ericsson or Cisco really believe that these large mergers typically work,” Chuck Robbins, Cisco’s chief executive, said in an interview.

Analysts don’t expect formal reviews by antitrust authorities, but politicians on both sides of the Atlantic may take a close look. Governments have been eager to closely monitor suppliers of equipment regarded as highly sensitive for security and privacy reasons. Huawei has been essentially shut out of the U.S. market after a congressional report deemed it a risk to national security.

For Ericsson, the alliance could help retain its position as the world’s biggest telecom-equipment supplier by sales, just as its Nordic rival Nokia regains strength. Nokia’s takeover of Alcatel-Lucent could create a powerful challenger to both Ericsson and Cisco.

To find new revenues, analysts said, Cisco and Ericsson must develop new products to cope with changes in the networks operated by mobile and wireline carriers—as well as exploit a trend called the “Internet of Things,” which will connect more everyday devices to one another.

The other problem is Huawei, which recently overtook Ericsson in the market for mobile infrastructure equipment, according to analysts at Dell’Oro Group. Huawei received 30% of revenues in that market during the first half of 2015, according to the research firm, compared with 27% for Ericsson and 25% for the combination of Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent.

Ericsson’s core business of supplying equipment has suffered from price competition and from the relatively slow rollout of broadband wireless networks, known by the acronym 4G, by its carrier customers.

Cisco also faces pressure from Huawei. Dell’Oro estimates that the Chinese company accounts for 13% of the global router business—Cisco has 49%—but Huawei has displaced Cisco as No. 1 in China.

In the short term, one benefit of the alliance is for Ericsson to resell Cisco networking gear. The Swedish company also has 65,000 service personnel that help advise carriers on how to build networks. Cisco, which has 11,000 service workers, can take advantage of the Ericsson staff, Mr. Robbins said.

Ericsson, which has around 116,240 employees, reported revenue last year of 228 billion Swedish kronor ($26.3 billion). Cisco, which employs 70,000 people, reported revenue of $49.2 billion in its latest fiscal year, which ended in July.

The companies sell some competing equipment, but the overlap is small. Cisco accounted for 1% of the wireless infrastructure market in the first half, while Ericsson accounted for 1% of the routing market, Dell’Oro Group estimates.

An added wrinkle of the partnership concerns patents. Ericsson, a wireless pioneer, claims 37,000 patents to Cisco’s 19,000. The companies said they expected to complete a patent cross-license agreement under which Cisco would pay an unspecified amount to Ericsson for use of its patents.

From Fortune on line magazine:

What exactly the partnership will do is obscured by scores of words of gobbledygook (that’s a technical term) issued by both companies. These refer to a “multifaceted relationship” focused on “networks of the future” that will facilitate the cross-selling of both companies’ “end-to-end product and services portfolio.” (Fortune’s Jonathan Vanian has details here.)

The companies weren’t prepared to discuss much about the commercial nature of their “non-deal deal.” They said neither company is taking an ownership position in the other, but they predict the combination will result in incremental revenues of $1 billion to each company by 2018.

There was one concrete type of reference to money: Cisco is paying Ericsson a licensing fee for the use of its patents. Cisco’s stock declined a bit, and Ericsson’s rose about the same amount, percentage-wise.

Rather than merging and all the headaches that would ensue, they reached multiple agreements, terms undisclosed, to work more closely together. Centerview Partners, an investment bank, advised on the partnership, according to a news release. That means money is involved.

Why be so cryptic? The kinds of equipment Ericsson and Cisco sell tend to make governments nervous. Nervous governments like to bless mergers before they happen. No merger, no blessing, no problem.

Fortune’s Stacey Higginbotham has a different take on this deal.

Forbes on line magazine:

The partnership comprises a series of agreements spanning everything from reselling and joint sales, to technology cross-licensing, co-innovation and joint professional services, and should it aims at boosting each company’s annual revenues significanly.

“Given Ericsson’s annual revenues of more than USD26 billion and Cisco’s of more than USD49 billion, and opportunities in new enterprise-driven communications and IoT services, we think each company’s goal of driving USD1 billion in new revenues by 2018 based on this strategic partnership is achievable,” said Dana Cooperson, Research Director at global telecoms specialist Analysys Mason

Ericsson’s nearly USD5 billion and Cisco’s over USD 0.7 billion in telecom software professional services is one possible area ripe for growth.

The agreement is described by analysts as an aggressive move positioning Ericsson and Cisco against competitors, like Huawei, HP, and Nokia Alcatel-Lucent , for dominance as the partners of choice for communication service providers that want to become digital service providers as well.

In fact, the announcement was well received by several high-profile executives of companies like Vodafone AT&T and Verizon. For Robert Gurnani, Verizon’s Chief Information and Technology Architect, it even “has the potential to reshape the industry.”

However, according to Cooperson, to make the agreement work, the Swedish and American multinationals will have to abide to certain preconditions. Their ability to pre-integrate solutions based on a common, robust, architecture will have to be of sufficient value in time and money to be compelling to customers.

Clients will need to be comfortable that Ericsson and Cisco are not just strengthening their leading positions in mobile infrastructure, professional services and IP infrastructure to create de facto lock-in. Finally, “the companies will need to show that they are not too big to move quickly to create joint solutions,” Cooperson said.